Hypocrisy is running rampant in Tennessee. No, this is not a new problem — seeing as we're a red state and Republicans and hypocrisy go together like bread and butter, cookies and milk, PB&J — you get it.
And, no, this problem is not confined to Tennessee, but of late in the Volunteer State, it's positively rising like a rocket.
Example 1: Tennessee's elected federal representatives, at least the Republicans, stampeded over each other to scream outrage about a temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Chattanooga in April. Gov. Bill Lee jumped on board with them, as did most of Tennessee's super-majority GOP legislators, never mind that the state and Gov. Bill Lee had approved the shelter a full year before — when Trump was president and they thought he would remain so. They decried the Biden administration use of the same shelter for the same purpose as a waste of state money (it wasn't) and "dark of night" human trafficking." Mind you, none of them made a peep all the months before when babies were ripped from parents' arms by the Trump administration.
But in May of this year, and after all that state and political hyperventilating over these youngsters being brought to the Chattanooga shelter, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services declined to investigate a child abuse complaint against a shelter employee made weeks before the state acknowledged alleged abuse there — a 35-year-old staff member kissing a 17-year-old resident.
Instead, the state punted. By definition, the state does not explicitly list "kissing" as an act of sexual abuse, as it does for the intentional contact with other parts of the body. When allegations that don't meet defined Child Protective Services investigation levels, incidents are reported to law enforcement.
A month later, Chattanooga police charged a shelter employee with sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence. On July 1, the state suspended the residential child care license of the Baptiste Group which had operated the shelter.
It gets worse. In the middle of all this, state inspectors with the Department of Children's Service conducted an unannounced site visit on June 3 and interviewed a half dozen children (which led to another report of a staff member kissing a child), but state inspectors said their visit unearthed "no findings or need for corrective action." And the state never — repeat never — conducted interviews with other children there who could have been victims, despite a request from the facility's director to do so.
Throughout this, these same Republicans, usually eaten up with concerns about crimes committed against Americans by immigrants, continued stoking that fear. As it turns out, the crime — if there was one — was from an American on an immigrant child. In a shelter the state and governor had approved all along.
Example 2: Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston plans to change the payroll source for his relatives employed in his office to comply with state nepotism laws. This after marrying one of his subordinates, keeping that news under wraps for months and later hiring his wife's brother.
Now Pinkston, who plans to run for re-election next year, is caught between County Commissioner Tim Boyd, who doesn't want Pinkston's relatives paid by county money, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who doesn't want them paid by the state, since state law forbids it.
Pinkston, as you know, is charged with prosecuting people who break the law. But it also doesn't look too good for the state agency overseeing district attorneys, which has dragged its feet for weeks on the matter until Gardenhire emailed the District Attorney's Conference in June. On July 7, conference director Guy Jones responded that the agency "certainly respects and intends to abide by the provisions of the statute." He said Pinkston, whose office includes state and county-funded employees, would move the two relatives to the county's payroll by Aug. 1.
Hamilton County general government has a similar policy preventing supervision of relatives, but the DA's office falls out of the parameters of typical county employees — as do other offices run by elected officials, known as constitutional officers.
That doesn't leave the county without a remedy, however. The DA's office would likely need to seek an additional $136,000 from the county for its budget to maintain the relatives' current salaries, plus the cost of benefits. And if the county doesn't OK that tweak? Then who in the DA's office might get cut to make budget ends meet? And how will that look to voters?
Gardenhire has aptly called it "a shell game" — not something any DA or the state agency that oversees DAs should want being said about them.
Example 3: Tennessee is the butt of all national COVID-19 jokes and horror stories this week after Gov. Bill Lee's administration was so bullied by anti-vaccine Republicans in the General Assembly that the state backed away from advertising not just COVID-19 vaccines for teens and tweens, but any vaccines for minors — and fired Tennessee's top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus. Someone even sent Fiscus, who is not going quietly, a muzzle — the clear message being to stop talking.
In early July and facing threats from some Republican lawmakers to abolish the Tennessee Department of Health, the governor said his administration "will work through parents" going forward. Then Fiscus became the fall guy.
In Congress and our statehouse, Republicans who once praised the Trump administration for its work facilitating the swift development of the vaccines are now waging campaigns of vaccine misinformation and fighting decades of vaccine outreach.
This rising "rocket" of GOP hypocrisy threatens more than our lives with COVID's ever-mutating dangers. It threatens law and justice, common sense and our very democracy.